The Coronavirus Health and Impact Study revealed that worry and anxiety about COVID-19 has been a leading factor in people’s ability to manage their mood and mental health since the pandemic began in December 2019.
Understanding what the COVID-19 virus is and how the original version compares to its newer variants can help you reduce your stress and worry by assisting you in making more informed decisions about COVID-19 testing and vaccination.
Let’s explore what viral variants are, the main COVID-19 variants to look out for, and how COVID-19 testing can help you reduce your risk of serious illness and decrease the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s responsible for COVID-19.
What is a Variant?
Every virus undergoes periodic changes of its genes that are known as ‘mutations’. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is no exception. That is why organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been tracking the virus so closely since the pandemic began.
The U.S. government’s SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) has identified three main categories of SARS-CoV-2 variants
- Variants of Interest (VOI) are those that display genetic changes and are being monitored to determine how these changes affect COVID-19’s severity, symptoms, transmission rates, diagnostics, and responses to therapies.
- Variants of Concern (VOC) meet all the criteria of VOI, plus have been determined to include at least one of the following features:
- Significant increases in transmission rates or disease severity
- Significant increases in rates of occurrence
- Changes in the symptoms displayed
- Some decreases in the effectiveness of treatments or healthcare measures
- Variants of High Consequence (VOHC) display very significant resistance to COVID-19 treatments or public health measures. So far, no VOHC have been identified anyplace in the world.
Can I Become Infected with a COVID-19 Variant if I’m Vaccinated?
While some variants of the COVID-19 virus can be partially resistant to vaccines, in general all three mRNA vaccines now available offer strong protection against the COVID-19 variants, especially more serious cases of the disease. This includes Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Some “breakthrough cases” have occurred, meaning people who’ve had a COVID-19 vaccination have become infected with a variant of the virus. However, research gathered by the CDC reveals that people who’ve been vaccinated by and large have less severe symptoms, reduced hospitalization rates, and better outcomes for recovery from the variants than unvaccinated populations.
What are the New COVID-19 Variants in the U.S.?
Delta Variant (VOC)
Beginning in July 2021, a large uptake in COVID-19 cases occurred in the U.S. Seven day averages went from approximately 12,000 at the end of June to over 60,000 just one month later. It soon became clear that the Delta variant was the predominant reason for these outbreaks.
Delta is thought to have begun in India before moving on to Great Britain and the U.S., where it is currently the most widespread form of the disease. It is considered a VOC because it spreads more than twice as fast as the previous versions of the SARS CoV-2 virus, including the original version. People with this variant also have higher rates of hospitalization than with previous forms of the virus, and a number of studies indicate that the symptoms may be more severe.
Delta symptoms themselves appear to be similar to the versions that came before Delta and include fever, shortness of breath, headache, sore throat, diarrhea, and nausea or vomiting. A 2021 Chinese Delta study found that this version of the virus has higher and faster rates of respiratory tract growth, which could account for some of the severity of symptoms. According to Yale Medicine, however, some data indicates that coughing and loss of smell aren’t as likely.
Health officials are still learning about the Delta variant, and data strongly indicates that vaccination is the best way to protect against this strain. For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective in the United Kingdom at preventing COVID-19 delta variant symptoms and 96% effective at warding off severe symptoms. According to the CDC, those who are vaccinated also appear to be infectious for shorter periods of time.
Just like with previous versions, breakthrough cases of the delta variant can occur in vaccinated individuals, and those who experience this phenomena and are symptomatic can spread the disease. Right now, it’s still unclear if vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic can transmit the Delta version of the virus, and that’s why the CDC recommends continued use of masks for indoors spaces or non-distanced events.
Lambda Variant (VOI)
Unlike the Delta variant, the Lambda variant is considered a VOI, because it is still being monitored to determine if it will act in ways that are significantly different than the standard COVID-19 virus. Lambda originated in Peru in 2020 and has recently moved into Chile and the UK. The first known case in the U.S. was found at the University of Houston during the last week of July 2021.
At this point there’s no indication from other countries that Lambda’s symptoms are any different than the common variants or that it’s more severe.
There are a few points of concern with Lambda that immunologists and public health officials are monitoring. First, some of Lambda mutations match those found in variants that tend to spread faster than the original version of SARS-CoV-2. Second, it appears to have a mutation that is resistant to the antibodies brought forth by the CoronaVac vaccine, which is the main vaccine brand used in Peru and Chile.
A 2021 study of Lambda out of Peru that has yet to undergo a peer review backs up these concerns. It reveals that Lambda is more infectious than the Alpha and Gamma variants and has greater success in “escaping” vaccine-induced antibodies. The relatively high number of breakthrough cases among vaccinated people in Chile is another indicator that Lambda is resistant to these antibodies.
The good news is that preliminary research in the U.S. indicates that the mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna appear to be highly effective against Lambda, although this research is also awaiting peer-review. The other piece of good news is that cases of Lambda appear to be decreasing worldwide as of August 2021.
Mu Variant (VOI)
The most recently discovered of the three variants, Mu was first identified in Columbia in January 2021. It was also placed on the list of VOIs as of August 2021 after being detected in at least 45 countries, including all 50 U.S. states. Similar to Lambda, Mu has mutations that may make it more resistance to immune defenses. This means that the number of cases could hypothetically increase even in the face of greater vaccination levels.
There is one mutation Mu shares with the quick transmitting Alpha variant. It also shares a few mutations with the Beta, Delta, and Gamma variants that may make it slightly more resistant to mRNA vaccines. That being said, Mu’s case numbers have been decreasing in the U.S. since June 2021, and for now, its many unique mutations are being tracked to learn more about their real-world effects.
CommunityLab Tip: If you’ve been wondering – where can I find rates of COVID-19 Delta variants near me, rates of COVID-19 Lambda variants near me, and rates of COVID-19 Mu variants near me? Try checking for rates of COVID-19 variants on your state or county public health department website.
Are Current COVID-19 Tests Able to Detect the Variants?
Yes. The current COVID-19 rapid antigen and PCR tests all work to determine if you have the SARS-CoV-2 virus, no matter what type of COVID-19 variant you have. This means that you aren’t required to get separate tests for each variant.
In fact, testing for the Delta variant, testing for the Lambda variant, and testing for the Mu variant is not automatically done when you have a COVID-19 test. Instead, just a portion of lab analyzed tests that show positive results for the COVID-19 virus are randomly selected to be analyzed for genome changes that indicate which type of variant they are. This helps health officials at the CDC, WHO, and other health organizations determine the prevalence of each variant.
So, while you will find out if you have the COVID-19 virus when you get tested, you won’t know which variant you have.
COVID-19 Tests with the Most Accurate Results
Even though you won’t be able to find out the variant you have when taking a COVID-19 test, you can increase your chances for an accurate reading by choosing the right test.
PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests have been shown to provide the most accurate COVID-19 results. This is why many countries and organizations require you to take a follow-up PCR test if you’ve been exposed to the virus and your (less accurate) rapid antigen test comes back negative.
To avoid the additional expense of a second test without sacrificing speed, our experts at CommunityLab paired up with Yale School of Public Health to offer you the groundbreaking SalivaDirect™ PCR test. This innovative testing method offers at-home saliva collection for COVID-19 by patients, which is a game changer for a variety of reasons, including:
- Fast turnaround time
Order CommunityLab’s no-swab Saliva Home Collection Kits for COVID-19 PCR test today, and we’ll send you the results in 24 hours from the time we receive your sample. This ensures that you can quickly get the healthcare you need if the results are positive, and gives you piece of mind knowing that you can safely return to work, traveling, and community activities if the results show that you’re COVID-19 free.